The plot of the film is quite simple, if improbable, and Franco would apparently borrow freely from its themes and images for many years afterwards (SUCCUBUS , VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY [both 1970]). Jean-Claude Carriere contributed to the script and while the film is closer in spirit to Franju than Bunuel, he manages a few distinctively surreal touches as when Irma Zimmer (Mabel Karr) 'tames' the rebellious Nadia/Miss Death (Estella Blain) by using a whip and a chair, as if she were a wild circus animal; or the fistfight at the climax which suddenly turns into a good old-fashioned swashbuckling routine. As a director, Franco rises to the occasion with any number of eerie and unusual compositions though the film does not entirely escape his trademark haphazard 'style'. Other visual assets here would have to be: the photography, which is smooth for a change and satisfactorily 'expressionistic'; and the production design, which maintains a good balance between 'old' (Dr. Zimmer's castle and country-house) and 'new' (Dr. Z's laboratory, full of hilariously impractical gadgets, and the cabaret where Miss Death performs her act). Daniel White's music, while not exactly imposing, provides the perfect underscoring for Franco's wild romp.
The film features several memorable sequences, often involving heart-pounding chases (Miss Death pursued in the empty theater by the hypnotized criminal Bergen; Dr. Moroni's fog-laden close encounter with both Miss Death and Irma Zimmer before he is dispatched) or graphic violence (Irma Zimmer's botched 'suicide' which leaves her facially scarred; Mrs. Moroni's death, by having her head plunged through a window-pane, ten years prior to Dario Argento's DEEP RED !; Dr. Vicas' train seduction and eventual assassination at the hands of Miss Death). Also notable, of course, is Miss Death's weird and kinky dance routine - complete with fetching outfit!
The cast was not made up of star names but they all acquit themselves nicely, particularly Mabel Karr who is quite convincing and even demands pity in her obsessive quest for revenge; Howard Vernon, the epitome of sleek villainy, though his presence is all too brief; and, above all, Estella Blain who is sumptuous throughout (aided a great deal, of course, by her character's all-important 'wardrobe').
The film contains several in-jokes and references to other films which Franco may have admired and subsequently been influenced by: during Dr. Zimmer's first appearance, the phone rings and Irma says after answering that it was Dr. Bresson calling that 'un condamne' a' mort s'est eschappe'' (a condemned man has escaped). It is an unexpected and amusing nod towards Robert Bresson (certainly among France's finest film-makers ever and one of my personal favorites) and that which is arguably his greatest film, more commonly known as A MAN ESCAPED (1956). Furthermore, Louis Feuillade's legendary seven-hour serial LES VAMPIRES (1915-16) is homaged by naming the leading character Irma (after that film's most memorable character, Irma Vep, who frequently sported sultry costumes herself) and Miss Death's dancing at a night-club recalls an early scene in Feuillade's Silent serial as well. Somehow I suspect that these references may be Carriere's doing (who could hardly fail to be aware of these two directors and their movies, especially the latter's which were highly regarded by the Surrealist movement) rather than Franco's, but I could be wrong. Franju's LES YEUX SANS VISAGE aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959) an established influence on Franco's THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (1961) is also referenced here in Irma's facial decompositions (which recall the ones suffered by Edith Scob in Franju's film), while Irma's killing of the hitch-hiker and disposing of her body in the river is strikingly similar to that film's opening sequence. Of course, the laboratory sequences in DR. Z are a loving nod towards the Universal monster films of the Thirties.
When a film is as enjoyable as this one, its faults thematic as well as technical are hardly worth criticizing, as these can often be pinned down to budgetary/time constraints. So, now I'll rush on to my thoughts on the DVD proper: the film is presented in French (which is what the actors are apparently mouthing) and it is a reasonably effective track, giving the whole a distinctly 'European' feel. Both the film's OAR and its running time have been the subject of controversy over the Internet these last few days. There are definite traces of overscan here, for even the menu screens are visibly cramped. The quality of the video and audio on this disc are excellent for the most part; unfortunately, the film's closing moments are marred by excessive pops and crackles on the soundtrack (these are also present on the English-dubbed version). The extras, while not plentiful, compliment the film superbly; particularly of note are the 15-minute featurette on Franco (giving a nice, if understandably skimpy, overview of his career), the informative biographies and, of course, the 'amusing' Easter Egg which shouldn't be too hard to find now! I don't quite know what to say about the 'extra' scenes featured in the 'Stills Gallery' section: these could just as well have been publicity shots, or perhaps were scrapped prior to release; it's true that the film runs for only 83 minutes when the 'original' Spanish version was somewhere between 86 and 87 minutes long, but that could be because the transfer was made in PAL mode (after all, Mondo Macabro is a UK-based company).
This film has certainly whetted my appetite for more films from this early phase of Franco's career. It seems that the only ones that are available on DVD are THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (unfortunately, I've already missed watching the original Spanish-language version of this one which I understand to be considerably longer twice so far!), THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (1962) and DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER (1964). Though I recall opinions on the other two as being pretty mixed, I would still like to know if they are cut as well?
I'm not quite sure which of the two Francos I prefer at this stage: while THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z is certainly the more enjoyable (and straightforward) one, EUGENIE THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1969) is obviously the more profound and thus mature and personal - work. That said, they have both earned their well-deserved place in my collection and, at long last, the (negative) barriers surrounding the Franco 'myth' have been dealt a blow, even if they are still a LONG way from being struck down though I don't know if I'd REALLY want to do that in the first place!
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